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Secondary injuries are undermining Packers’ effective blitz packages

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Mike Pettine has been one of the most aggressive defensive playcallers in the NFL this season, but injuries at cornerback have caught up with this defense.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks
Injuries in the secondary have hurt the Packers pass rush as well.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Packers defense still gets sacks. They’re fifth in adjusted sack rate, the same place they were a month ago, and third in total sacks. But of course, sacks are an imperfect measure of blitz performance. If a team gets a lot of sacks but also gives up plays in the passing game when they don’t get home, that creates a high-variance defense that likely gives up big yardage and point totals.

At one point in the season, Green Bay boasted the best blitz package in football by passer rating. Now, despite blitzing at a high rate (10th in the league) they’re 17th in the league defending quarterbacks when they actually have a chance to throw the ball according to ESPN’s NFL Matchup.

This comes from two things: teams are recognizing blitz looks and deciding even if they can’t diagnose exactly where the free rushers are coming, they can beat the blitz with specific plays. Pettine’s scheme involves so much stemming and bluffing, defenders sometimes bluff themselves out of position in coverage.

Take this play from Seattle on what turned out to be the decisive scoring play. The Packers show an overload pressure to Russell Wilson’s right side but with the back already to that side, the Seahawks should have enough guys to block it if everyone comes. Seattle thinks it has a man for every blitzing Packer.

Pettine is bluffing. Josh Jackson comes off the slot and Blake Martinez drops, leaving Jackson unaccounted for off the edge. Wilson, knowing he’s going to have to get the ball out quickly, correctly realizes Ibraheim Campbell is playing outside leverage on tight end Ed Dickson, leaving the middle of the field open. He doesn’t have to know Jackson is coming to know that’s the side where he has the advantage.

If Martinez isn’t stemming at the snap and trying to trick Wilson, he’s likely in the middle of the field where his coverage responsibility is, making the throw throw much more difficult. Instead, Wilson gets the ball out of his hands in an instant, keeping Jackson from using his lane to get home and just barely beating Martinez’s outstretched arm with the ball.

In fact, Martinez overruns the throw trying to get back. If he’s just sitting and dropping from his usual middle of the field linebacker spot, there’s no window to make this throw. Martinez would read Wilson’s eyes, and even have a chance to pick that throw off.

The more film teams have on the defense, the more efficient they’ll be designing plays to counter these blitz packages. Pettine’s task will be to counter the counters.

Not every team will have the perfect call against the blitz like the Seahawks did on this play and luckily not every team the Packers face employs Wilson, who has played at an extremely high level even by his standards this season. But this coaching staff will have to find ways to not hurt their coverage in hopes of creating confusion for the quarterback.

That dovetails with the second ailment of this blitz package: literal ailments. Injuries to Kevin King and Bashaud Breeland forced the Packers to start a trio of rookies the last three weeks and it shouldn’t be surprising that Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson were able to take advantage.

Jaire Alexander’s star turns before our eyes, but Josh Jackson has struggled in man coverage this season and it’s not crazy to suggest undrafted free agent Tony Brown has been better as a pure man corner already this season. That’s not so much a compliment to Brown as it is an indictment of Jackson, who was always going to take some time adjusting to life in the NFL with such limited experience at Iowa.

Trading Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, along with the resulting position change for Tramon Williams, forced the Packers to spread their cornerback group thinner than it would have been with Williams playing there. With Alexander, Jackson, King and Breeland, this defense would have more than enough bodies to provide ample resistance. That’s dare I say, a beastly cornerback room with the potential to be one of the best in the game.

When the secondary has been something resembling healthy, the cornerback group has been stellar. They simply haven’t been healthy enough. If the coverage can’t help the pass rush on non-blitzing calls and can’t hold up consistently on blitzes, the defense softens considerably. Blitzing more often could lead to higher success rates in terms of taking down the quarterback, but would make them a higher variance defense, giving up bigger plays down the field.

That could be one reason we’ve seen a little more vanilla coverage the last few weeks, with the blitz rate falling. Pettine simply can’t trust his secondary to hold up consistently in man coverage when they’re sending extra bodies. He’s had to use more four and five-man pressure with disguise to simply confuse offenses, rather than outflank them. That can and has worked for the Packers, but as we saw in the Seahawks game, that plan has its drawbacks as well.

Like with most teams, Green Bay needs to be healthy to be operating at full steam. In the case of the secondary, even more than a lack of elite individual pass rush, the Packers need that depth and talent on the field to make this defense work.